(Editor’s note: There are sound clips in this piece which include lyrics that may or may not offend some readers. Please listen at your own risk and enjoy the way in which their insertion breaks up the post ever so well.)
In Cleveland, the cliches are ripe for the picking. We tend to cling to the blue-collar way of life despite the fact that the steel mills closed up shop a decade ago and downtown is presently littered with bankers, lawyers and health care executives. We use reference points like lunch pails and time cards, talk about the 9-to-5 grind and the occasional second job; even the NBA lockout has become about the people who attempt to earn a living outside the confines of the arena, those who will have a considerably decreased tip share to split when the nights comes to an end.
That said, the music landscape within the early-to-mid 1990s is also well-documented. The Seattle grunge scene was in full tilt as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were pushing crazy units while encouraging countless teens to tie flannel shirts around their waists. A post-alt punk group out of California named Green Day punched us square in the ears with their power-chord-laced lines about boredom and smoking marijuana. Janet Jackson reinvented herself as being less weird1, R. Kelly had not had a run-in with Megan’s law, and Ace of Base made us want to not only turn around, but turn around and run as fast as we could with our fingers plugged cochlea deep.
But none of the aforementioned – despite the countless awards and everlasting impact that some of them would eventually have on music today – wrote music about or resided anywhere near the shores of Lake Erie. Which is why when I first had a chance to hear the rapid-fire lyrics of a group hailing about 99 blocks east of public square, I was hooked. To this day, I have no clue what or where the “double glock” even is, but it’s the place Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony allegedly called home, and that was alright with me.
The rock music that permeated the early 90s was obvious group-fueled. You’ll have that when instruments and, you know, actual signing is involved. On the hip-hop/rhythm and blues side of the tracks, the game was owned by solo acts – Coolio’s crazy hair, Snoop Dogg’s headnodic beats and….crazy hair, and the members of the then-defunct NWA were all doing their own thing and making tons of money doing so. Biggie Smalls was still about one year away from waxing vesuvian about a juicy, big popping warning that would ultimately begin to chisel his likeness into hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore2. So when Cleveland’s “Bone” crept up on the scene, it was a renaissance of sorts. Given the lack of air time for each track and no real instrumentation to be had within the genre, a rap group was now a rarity. Save for the Wu-Tang Clan, Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, having more than two members – the ever successful OutKastian business model – was just not a way of life anymore3.
The effect that this, along with the obvious pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, had on the game, can still be seen and heard today. Solo acts like Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Drake can all be found rolling four or five deep on certain tracks. Drizzy’s “Forever” (from the More Than a Game Soundtrack) is the epitome of this. DJ Khaled is all over today’s Billboard charts and I’m fairly certain he hasn’t been a part of anything more than a hook on any of “his” hit songs.
It helped that this specific group of Clevelander’s was instantly legitimized by Eric “Eazy E” Wright in the same way that Dr. Dre helped launch the careers of Snoop and, later, Eminem, but something else BTNH did that was almost unheard of back in the 1990s rap scene, and is most certainly extinct in today’s age of ringtones and singles, is the concept of the album. Repetitive lyrical content aside, Bone’s albums (both the EP and LPs) had introductions and interludes, and the tracks were placed in a certain order for a reason. This made my introduction to Bone all the easier; I had owned their debut EP “Creepin’ on a Come Up,” but it was on cassette tape, so it was easy to just rewind until the button popped, press play and slap that bad boy on my belt for the next 40-or-so minutes. To this day, despite being deep-rooted in suburbia, when the clip of the baptist pastor Calvin O. Butts talking about “not being against rap or rappers” pours through the speakers, it instantly brings back memories of the junior high hallways and bus rides, and snapping those aluminum, plastic and foam-comprised headphones around my head as often as I could. This was my “Dark Side of the Moon,” just really dark and by no means as historically renowned4.
Intermingled with the raps about 211s, 187s and the occasional wig-splitting, Bone Thugs and Harmony spoke vehemently about Cleveland, specifically the East Side. I have never actually been to the intersection of E. 99th Street and St. Clair Avenue, but I trust that it exists, at least in lore. Making things all the better were the way that these five guys managed to don Cleveland sports gear on their album covers as well as various photo shoots, despite being three-to-four sizes larger than likely needed. You want street cred? Boom, Krayzie Bone in a Tim Couch jersey. In the same way that it was relatively impossible for my generation to relate to Eddie Vedder’s whispering hands and concrete pillows on “Evenflow,” there was no comprehension or embodiment of drinking Old English, G’s versus enemies, or anything remotely “thuggish.” But these guys were from Cleveland. And as that kind young woman who likely never had much of a career after her guest appearance on “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” said, Cleveland is definitely in the house.
Fast forward about two decades and the Cleveland hip-hop ties continue to run deep. Coincidentally also hailing from the east side of town are solo acts Kid Cudi and Machine Gun Kelly – the former of which dabbles in more of a neo-psychedalia style5 of hip-hop more akin to that of Andre 3000, Q-Tip’s Tribe or The Pharcyde, complete with instrumentation including but not limited to Cudi occasionally on guitar. Kelly, on the other hand, has more Bone-like influences that can be seen from his name and heard from his rat-a-tat-tat delivery on many of his tracks that often discuss his childhood, old neighborhood and all things inherent.
But where solo acts like Cudi and MGK really differ from a lot of the mainstream (using airplay as a guage) type artists who are out there today is in the lyrical content. While Jay-Z and Kanye West drop a long-awaited album that is littered with self-proclaimed luxury rap, the “Hermes of verses,” the two Cleveland acts stay true to their past. Where Kanye opts to rap about being racist for “only liking green faces,” Kelly talks about being more simplistic in his ways, not needing the latest Louis bag – “Twenty dollar Levis/I don’t need green guys” is just one lighthearted quip from Kell’s Lace Up mixtape. While “Watch the Throne” is full of trips to Paris, France with limitless black American Express cards, yellow/gold bottles of Veuve Clicquot, and planking on $1 million, Scott Mescudi flows poetical about Midwestern accents, preferring things more real and old school, and – straight to the point – that their really isn’t a city quite like Cleveland6.
In return, when Cudi or MGK take to a local stage, there’s a reason why they’re met with a collective sea of local fans of all shapes, colors and creeds. Cudi headlined the 2010 Ohio Homecoming where he showed up embracing his hometown, rocking a Chief Wahoo hat. And if anyone dare think that this was a one-off placation to the masses, the now-27-year old has frequented the good chief in many of photo shoots. Becoming a bit of a fashion icon for his hipster-hop look of skinny jeans and high-top J’s, topping it off with a bit of Tribe gear certainly ensures that Cudi fans know that their star doesn’t forget where he came from. Conversely, MGK is rarely seen with a shirt on these days let alone he be mistaken for sartorial, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have sleeves – the heavily tattooed 21-year old has a gigantic I-71 North sign on his right shoulder, just one of countless ink lines which drape his torso. Being recently signed to Diddy’s Bad Boy Record label, the near future looks very bright for the local star.
Like their Thuggish Ruggish brethren, Cudi and Kells will never be confused with Eric B. and Rakim, but the Rock Hall hopefuls didn’t hail from nor rap about this city which we call home. Just how we embrace the likes of Joshua Cribbs, Joe Haden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, anyone from Ohio State, and adored LeBron James up until last summer, the Clevelander mentality places their own on a pedestal and chooses to adore them just as much as the rest of the world would give attention to the ubercelebrity.
Embrace us and embrace this town, and we will undeniably embrace back. Ten-fold. Cleveland may or may not rock, but with the last decade or so of successful acts to hail from this Midwestern town, it most certainly raps.
1. I was, admittedly, a big fan of the video for “If.” I was also 12-years old.
2. Completely personal opinion, but my hip-hop Mount Rushmore ignores respective influence and is comprised of Biggie, Jay-Z, Eminem and OutKast’s Andre 3000.
3. Let’s be honest: Hip-hop acts are not huge draws on tour. Jay-Z didn’t even sell out the Wolstein Center when LeBron James was here. That said, revenues are made purely via downloads and album purchases. Using basic math, it’s better to split that top line one or two ways rather than five. And this isn’t even factoring in the ever-increasing share that the labels take right off of the top.
4. It’s worth mentioning that E. 1999 Eternal, the groups first LP, has sold well north of 10 million units and would be certified as Diamond if Ruthless Records wasn’t folded and sold to a multitude of different companies, be they Atlantic, Warner or Sony. Someone has to pay for the certification, it appears that no one really wants to.
5. You can’t go wrong with the sounds of half-speed synthesizers combined with chimes,. Really.
6. The interesting dichotomy here is pretty obvious as Kanye was the one to discover – and in turn legitimize – Mescudi. The Clevelander has been featured on various tracks from both he and Jay-Z. If anything, it’s a shear testament to Kanye’s ear for quality.